Tuesday, May 5, 2009

What is Success?

One of my heroes is John Perkins. He was a sharecropper’s son who grew up in Mississippi amidst dire poverty. His mother died when he was 7 months old and his father left him shortly after that. Although he dropped out of school in the third grade, Perkins eventually moved to California, got a very good job, married his wife (still married after 55 years!), had kids, a nice car, and a very nice house. Perkins was the incarnation of the American Dream. But then Perkins couldn’t get a single phrase out of his mind: “Success isn’t enough.” The thought was so penetrating that Perkins moved his family back to Mississippi to engage in civil rights activism. He was beaten and tortured on his way to becoming the “Father of Christian Community Development.”

Success isn’t enough. I remember having a similar thought when I started taking academics seriously from a Christian perspective. I was good at the college “game,” figuring out ways to get good grades by doing minimal work. Academic success, for me, was seeing my name on the Dean’s list showing others how bright I was.

Academic success isn’t enough. If we are going to be serious about our faith in college, I think it will require a re-examination of how we define success. The novelist Walker Percy writes of the person who "gets all As and flunks life." The pursuit of academic faithfulness doesn't guarantee all As. It will lead, however, to a life worth living, a life lived on behalf of others.

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